VAL THORENS, France -- Perpetuating the tradition of great Colombian climbers, Egan Bernal left his mark on the Tour de France in the mountains. But unlike his flashy predecessors, he is also poised to win cycling's biggest race. At just 22.
"Colombia always had great climbers," Bernal said. "We won the Giro, the Vuelta, but it never happened before on the Tour. For many years we had great cyclists, we never managed to win. It did not work out on the Tour de France. Now we have it."
Long before Bernal was born, Colombian riders like Lucho Herrera and Fabio Parra conquered the hearts of cycling fans with long and spectacular raids in the Tour mountains. But for all their brilliance, they never came close to winning the race. More recently, Nairo Quintana ended up runner-up twice behind Chris Froome but lacked the time trialing abilities required to overcome the British four-time champion.
This year's route, the highest in the race history with five summit finishes — including three stages finishing above 2,000 meters and only 54 kilometers of time trialing — gave natural-born climber Bernal a golden opportunity.
Unlike Bradley Wiggins, Froome and Geraint Thomas — the three other riders who won the Tour for the British outfit Ineos — Bernal is not a race-against-the-clock specialist. He has built his success on consistent performances in the Pyrenees and a tremendous attack in the Alps after losing ground in the individual time trial.
"The talent is there to see, he was born to go uphill fast," said Bernal's teammate and now deposed champion Geraint Thomas. "He has got many, many great years in front of him. A very bright future."
Thomas, lagging 1 minute and 11 seconds behind overall, should finish runner-up to give the Ineos team a 1-2 finish in Paris, like they did in 2012 when the squad was called Sky.
Weighing only 59 kilograms (130 pounds), the super-light Bernal thrived in rarefied air, and it was fitting that he delivered his fatal blow in the Col de l'Iseran, the Tour's highest point this year at 2,770 meters.
A cycling star in the making, Bernal took the race lead Friday when Stage 19 was dramatically cut short by a landslide across the route to the Alpine ski station of Tignes and by a violent hailstorm that made road conditions too icy for riders racing on two wheels barely wider than their thumbs. He'd moved away from Julian Alaphilippe, the punchy rider from France who did more than anyone to make this Tour the most exciting in decades and held the race lead for 14 days, on a super-difficult climb to the Iseran. When the race was then stopped with Bernal racing away on the downhill, organizers decided the riders' timings to the top of the Iseran climb would be used to determine the overall standings.
And that put Bernal in yellow.
He wrapped up his victory during Saturday's Stage 20 to Val Thorens, won by 2014 champion Vincenzo Nibali. Shortened to just 59 kilometers (36 miles) because of landslide on the route, it featured a 33-kilometer climb up to the ski station that was too difficult for Alaphilippe, who cracked after starting the day in second place and allowed Steven Kruijswijk to secure a third-place finish overall.
The ascent to Val Thorens was certainly not as terrifying as the Pacho, a Colombian mountain Bernal uses as his training ground.
"It's my favorite climb, a 23 kilometer-long ascent at 3,000 meters," he said. "Every time before I travel to Europe, I go there and test myself. And to me, every time we face a long climb at the Tour, it's like climbing Pacho. That climb really helped me. I'm gaining confidence when I climb it."
On the road to Val Thorens, Bernal shook hands with Alaphilippe, who left his mark on the race with his unpredictable attacks and strategies. Throughout the race, Alaphilippe forced the teams of favorites to rethink their strategies as they tried to topple the unconventional Frenchman.
"I don't think it was the parcours (race route), it was the fact that Alaphilippe started so strongly, had a good advantage and was so strong," Thomas said. "It was incredible how he stepped up and improved. A big, big well done to him. He fought until the very end. Fair play to him and his team. That was the reason why the race was raced so differently."
Ineos was not as dominant as in previous years and, in addition to Alaphilippe's bold moves, had to deal with challenges mounted by Thibaut Pinot's FDJ and Kruijswijk's Jumbo Visma. With new dynamics, the race was filled with suspense until Pinot withdrew with a leg injury and Bernal stamped his authority for good in the Iseran.
If he wins, Bernal will achieve a feat unmatched by the Tour's greatest champions — five-time winners Eddy Merckx, Jacques Anquetil, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain — who were all older when they first won.
Although he went through a bad day in the Pau time trial, Bernal has really improved his technique over the past two years to morph into an all-rounder, making many observers believe his reign could be a very long one.
"If you're just a climber and can't ride a time trial, you can't win the Tour de France," Bernal said. "I work on time trials a lot. I could have lost the Tour on this one."
Bernal has also proved stronger than Thomas, who threw his weight behind the Colombian heading into the penultimate stage. Bernal and Thomas crossed together in Val Thorens, with the Welshman warmly congratulating his successor.
It has been a meteoric rise to the top for Bernal, who competed at his first Tour last summer and did an impressive job in support of Thomas and Froome.
With barely any experience in road racing, he turned pro with the small Androni Giocattoli Pro Continental team before Ineos manager Dave Brailsford signed him two years ago following his victory at the Tour de l'Avenir, the most prestigious stage race for Under-23 riders.
This season, Bernal was set to get a maiden leader experience at the Giro d'Italia. But he fractured his collarbone in a training crash, forcing him to miss the race and 76 days overall. He returned to competition in June to win the Tour de Suisse, another prestigious title to add to his success at Paris-Nice in March.
"All I know is if I had not crashed before the Giro I would not be in that position," Bernal said. "After riding the Giro at (age) 22, it would have been impossible to recover and to be in this position at the Tour. Things happen for a reason."
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